Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics
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Appellant a Louisiana attorney representing oil spill claimants in the settlement program, was accused of funneling money to a settlement program staff attorney through improper referral payments. In a disciplinary proceeding, the en banc Eastern District of Louisiana found that Appellant’s actions violated the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct and suspended him from practicing law before the Eastern District of Louisiana for one year. Appellant appealed, arguing that the en banc court misapplied the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct and abused its discretion by imposing an excessive sanction.   The Fifth Circuit found that the en banc court misapplied Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.5(e) and 8.4(a) but not Rule 8.4(d). Additionally, the en banc court did not abuse its discretion by imposing a one-year suspension on Appellant for his violation of 8.4(d). Accordingly, the court reversed the en banc court’s order suspending Appellant from the practice of law for one year each for violations of Rule 1.5(e) and 8.4(a). The court affirmed the en banc court’s holding that Appellant violated Rule 8.4(d). Finally, the court remanded to the en banc court for further proceedings. On remand, the court is free to impose on Appellant whatever sanction it sees fit for the 8.4(d) violation, including but not limited to its previous one-year suspension. View "In re Jonathan Andry" on Justia Law

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Clinton Mullin and Valrena Nelson appealed the dismissal of their claims for legal malpractice/negligence. Mullin and Nelson argued Elizabeth Pendlay committed legal malpractice by: (1) stipulating to jury instructions that misstated the law; (2) failing to plead the affirmative defenses of unclean hands and/or illegality; (3) not objecting to a video admitted as evidence at the trial; and (4) filing a motion to stay with the North Dakota Supreme Court before filing an appeal. In November 2014, Mullin retained Pendlay to commence an action to evict Richard Twete from property Twete "sold" to Mullin meant to be a temporary conveyance. Twete subsequently sued Mullin and Nelson seeking a return of his property, alleging a confidential relationship existed between Twete and Mullin. Pendlay served as the attorney for Mullin and Nelson through most of the litigation and was their attorney for the trial. A jury found Mullin to have breached a confidential relationship with Twete. Mullin and Nelson were ordered to convey the property back to Twete and compensate Twete for the value of any property that could not be returned. Represented by new counsel, Mullin and Nelson appealed and the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed. After the conclusion of the Twete litigation, Mullin and Nelson filed suit against Pendlay. The Supreme Court concluded summary judgment was proper and affirmed the judgment. View "Mullin, et al. v. Pendlay" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court granted the petition brought by the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission claiming that Judge Carroll violated several rules of the Arkansas Code of Judicial Conduct, including breaching his duty to the public and undermining the fair and impartial administration of justice, holding that disciplinary action was required.In its petition, the Commission agreed to recommend a suspension without pay for ninety days, with thirty days held in abeyance for one year, and certain remedial measures for Judge Carroll's improprieties. The Supreme Court granted the Commission's expedited petition and modified the recommendation sanction by suspending Judge Carroll without pay for eighteen months, with six of those months held in abeyance. The Court further ordered Judge Carroll to perform an assessment and complete a plan with the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program, holding that, given the seriousness of the conduct at issue, the length of the recommended suspension was insufficient. View "Ark. Judicial Discipline & Disability Comm'n v. Carroll" on Justia Law

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Hewittel was convicted of armed robbery and related offenses based solely on the testimony of the victim. Three witnesses—one of them having little relationship with anyone in the case—were prepared to testify in support of Hewittel’s alibi that he was at home, almost a half-hour from the crime scene when the crime occurred. Hewittel’s attorney failed to call any of those witnesses at trial, not because of any strategic judgment but because Hewittel’s counsel thought the crime occurred between noon and 12:30 p.m. when Hewittel was at home alone. The victim twice testified (in counsel’s presence) that the crime occurred at 1:00 or 1:30 p.m.—by which time all three witnesses were present at Hewittel’s home. Counsel also believed that evidence of Hewittel’s prior convictions would have unavoidably come in at trial. In reality, that evidence almost certainly would have been excluded, if Hewittel’s counsel asked. Throughout the trial, Hewittel’s counsel repeatedly reminded the jury that his client had been convicted of armed robbery five times before.The trial judge twice ordered a new trial. The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed, based in part on the same mistake regarding the time of the offense. The federal district court granted a Hewittel writ of habeas corpus. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, calling the trial “an extreme malfunction in the criminal justice system.” View "Hewitt-El v. Burgess" on Justia Law

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In these consolidated appeals the Supreme Court denied Respondents' request to withdraw the Chief Justice's certification letter and dismiss the underlying petitions as improvidently granted, holding that the Governor's appointment of two substitute justices to participate in the determination of these cases did not violate due process or due course of law protections.After two of the Supreme Court's nine justices voluntarily recused themselves from the case, the Chief Justice requested that the Governor appoint two qualified justices or judges to participate in the Court's determination of these appeals. Respondents objected, arguing that allowing the Governor to appoint justices would create due process and ethical problems where the State was not a party. The Supreme Court denied Respondents' requests to dismiss the petitions as improvidently granted, holding (1) there was no serious risk of actual bias under Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., 556 U.S. 868 (2009); and (2) the Governor's appointment of the two substitute justices did not taint the commissioned justices with the appearance of partiality or impropriety under the Texas ethical rules. View "State v. Audi Aktiengesellschaft" on Justia Law

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The controversy, in this case, is rooted in the propriety of a lawyer charging a wage earner a contingent attorney’s fee for prosecuting the wage earner’s Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) claims in a U.S. District Court. The wage earner paid the contingent fee and then sued his lawyer in Alabama state court to recover part of the fee. That court stayed the action so the wage earner and his lawyer could present the attorney’s fee controversy to the District Court that had presided over the FLSA case. The district court found the contingent fee excessive, ordered the lawyer to return the attorney’s fee, and dismissed the proceeding as moot.   The Eleventh Circuit dismissed the appeal and instructed the district court to vacate its order and deny the attorney’s and Plaintiff’s motions for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The court explained that had Plaintiff’s Rule 60 motion sought actual Rule 60 relief, the district court would have had jurisdiction to entertain it because the district court had jurisdiction over the underlying FLSA and employment discrimination controversy. But Plaintiff did not ask for—and the District Court did not grant—the type of relief authorized by Rule 60. Doing anything more than reopening the matter that had previously been dismissed, which is all Rule 60 allows, required an independent jurisdictional basis. The district court did not have such an independent jurisdictional basis when it litigated the state court breach of contract action as if it had been brought under 28 U.S.C. Section 1332. View "Carlos Padilla v. Redmont Properties LLC, et al" on Justia Law

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In 2019, Tennessee imposed new requirements for conducting voter-registration activities. The law required individuals to register with the state; complete state-administered “training”; file a “sworn statement” agreeing to obey Tennessee’s voter-registration laws; and return “completed” voter-registration forms within 10 days. Plaintiffs argued that the law significantly burdened their rights of speech and association, in violation of the First Amendment, and was unconstitutionally vague. The court stated that the defendants had offered “little, if any, evidence” in support of the Act’s requirements, “despite having had an opportunity” and held that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on the merits, further noting “the vagueness about the scope and nature" of the Act. The court “ordered” the defendants “not to take any steps to implement” or otherwise enforce the challenged provisions. The defendants did not appeal. Seven months later, the state repealed the provisions.The district court approved a stipulation to dismiss the case without prejudice. Plaintiffs were awarded attorneys’ fees under 42 U.S.C. 1988, as the “prevailing party.” The Sixth Circuit affirmed. A preliminary injunction that, as a practical matter, concludes the litigation in the plaintiffs’ favor and that is not challenged on appeal, is, in this case, enduring enough to support prevailing-party status under section 1988. View "Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP v. Hargett" on Justia Law

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In an interlocutory appeal, the State challenged a trial court order that granted defendant Jorge Solis’ motion to disqualify the entire Seventh Judicial District Attorney’s Office because his public defender, began working for the DA’s office prosecuting his case. The issue presented here was whether, as Solis argued before the trial court, his attorney’s former representation of Solis constituted “special circumstances” under section20-1-107(2), C.R.S. (2022), requiring not just the attorney’s disqualification, but also disqualification of the entire DA’s Office. Following a half-day hearing, the trial court found that the DA’s Office had a screening policy in place and that it had taken additional precautions to wall the attorney off from Solis’s prosecution. The court thus concluded Solis had failed to establish that special circumstances existed such that “it [was] unlikely that [he] would receive a fair trial.” The Colorado Supreme Court concluded the trial court abused its discretion in granting Solis’s motion. The trial court’s determination that the attorney could potentially deviate from the screening policy in the future was based on his appearance in Mr. Flores-Molina’s case; it was not a determination that the attorney would violate the screening policy in this case or that confidential information from the attorney’s prior representation had not been or could not continue to be adequately screened from the attorneys prosecuting Solis’s case. Because there was no evidence in the record that Solis is unlikely to receive a fair trial, the Supreme Court vacated the trial court’s order disqualifying the entire DA’s Office. View "Colorado v. Solis" on Justia Law

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Langley was arrested in connection with a Newark drug trafficking operation. Langley agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute 28 grams or more of crack-cocaine, 21 U.S.C. 846, which carries a mandatory five-year minimum sentence, agreeing that he would not argue for a sentence below five years’ imprisonment and that he would enter into an appellate waiver, applicable to any challenges to a sentence of five years or below. During his plea hearing, the district court engaged in a thorough colloquy and ensured that Langley had discussed his plea agreement with his counsel and that he understood the appellate waiver. The court considered his arguments concerning the pandemic, the effect of the crack/powder cocaine disparity on the Guidelines calculation, and the age of his criminal convictions. The court determined that the applicable guideline range was 110-137 months and sentenced Langley to 60 months’ imprisonment.In lieu of filing an appellate brief, Langley’s counsel moved to withdraw, asserting in his Anders brief that he identified “no issue of even arguable merit.” Langley submitted a pro se brief, arguing for a further sentencing reduction. The Third Circuit dismissed. Langley’s court-appointed counsel filed an Anders brief that, on its face, met the standard for a “conscientious investigation" of possible grounds for appeal. Counsel is not required to anticipate or address all possible arguments. There are no non-frivolous issues for Langley to raise on appeal. View "United States v. Langley" on Justia Law

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Taska was hired by TRR in 2017 but was terminated in 2018, allegedly based on her protest against the CEO’s discriminatory comments and her reports of workplace-related legal violations. After arbitration, Taska stated her intent to file a petition for attorney fees and costs under Government Code 12965(b), “upon a liability finding.” TRR also sought fees and costs, arguing Taska’s lawsuit should be deemed meritless, based on her “fabricated evidence.” TRR did not ask for any specific amount or offer supporting evidence. The arbitrator determined that Taska failed to prove her claims and was not entitled to fees or costs; TRR was not entitled to fees and costs because Taska’s claims were not frivolous. TRR later sought fees and costs, explaining that facts established by the arbitrator were not available at the time of the previous briefing. The arbitrator issued a new “Final Award,” awarding TRR $53,705.43. A Corrected Final Award increased the amount to $73,756.43, based on a calculation error.The trial court confirmed the liability determination but held that the arbitrator exceeded her authority by amending the original Award. The court of appeal affirmed. Once the 30-day period for correction (section 1284) runs, the award is final and the arbitrator’s jurisdiction ends apart from specific statutory exceptions, The court rejected TRR’s “placeholder” argument that the Award was not “final” because the issue of fees and costs was not ripe until the arbitrator determined the question of liability. View "Taska v. The RealReal, Inc." on Justia Law